He’s Got Issues
By Nick Pinkerton

The Hateful Eight
Dir. Quentin Tarantino, U.S., The Weinstein Company

The Hateful Eight is Quentin Tarantino’s most formally daring film since 2007’s Death Proof, and his least palatable since, well, the last one, 2012’s Django Unchained. Tarantino’s stock-in-trade is discourse and dismemberment, and the suspense in his films is largely a game of guessing when and how the talking will end and the shooting begin. Sometimes the speechifying comes after the bloodletting, as in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) when Lucy Liu’s O-Ren Ishii calmly assuages any controversy over her Chinese-American heritage at a yakuza counsel after beheading a challenger—a sort-of inversion of Lee J. Cobb’s boardroom power play in Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl (1958), also embellished upon by Brian De Palma in The Untouchables (1987). More often, it’s a preamble to the big show: think, for instance, of Jules’s unloading Ezekiel 25:17 before he unloads his clip in Pulp Fiction; Robert De Niro cutting short Bridget Fonda’s mocking prattle with an abrupt gunshot in Jackie Brown; the long, aimless arias of girl talk before the action set pieces of Death Proof, or the “Who Am I?” drinking game that precedes the Mexican standoff in the tavern basement in Inglourious Basterds.

The last instance is particularly instructive, for it suggests something that is borne out in The Hateful Eight: for Tarantino, the parlor game provides an alluring cinematic model. The director’s latest—“The Eighth Film by Quentin Tarantino” reads the film’s own opening credits, per his usual self-promotional bravura—is a chamber drama that spends the vast majority of its runtime (over three hours in the “roadshow” version) in enclosed spaces, shut up with an ensemble of characters who are concealing hidden motives and bloody pasts. Watching the film, I thought for the first time in years of the series of How to Host a Murder boxed games that were a brief dinner party craze when I was a child in the 1980s, though the real precedent is the body-count thriller as exemplified by Agatha Christie’s 1939 bestseller And Then There Were None (I wonder if Quentin’s copy has the original, more impolitic title?) and its various cinematic brethren.

The Hateful Eight takes place not in a secluded manor house but in western country: the Wyoming Territory, in the dead of winter. After an opening overture introducing Ennio Morricone’s score, we begin our ride-along with John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter whose dedication to seeing his captives brought in alive for capital punishment has earned him the nickname “The Hangman.” We encounter Ruth in the process of transporting a notorious female felon, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), across the desolate landscape via overland stage. En route, Ruth picks up two hitchhikers: first Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a veteran of the Union cause turned hired gun like Ruth, then Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), formerly a rider in a gang of Confederate bushwhackers modeled on Quantrill’s Raiders, who claims that he is the newly appointed sheriff of Red Rock, whence Ruth and Warren are bound. Thanks to an incoming storm, however, the quartet and stage driver O.B. (James Parks) get no further than a roadside tavern with the curious name of Minnie’s Haberdashery, where, even more curiously, Minnie and her staff are nowhere to be found; in their place are a slew of shifty-looking strangers (Demián Bichir, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, and Tim Roth), who seem to the vocationally untrusting Ruth a veritable nest of vipers.

The action is removed from the battlefields of the Civil War by two thousand miles and some years, though most everyone at the Haberdashery seems to still nurse some kind of festering wound from the conflict. The dramatis personae have been imagined as living embodiments of the various ways in which human beings can be unpleasant. Warren and Mannix both have massacres in their personal histories, as does the elderly Confederate General (Dern) discovered warming by the hearth, and the iniquities committed under the cover of war seem to keep popping up, revealing the awful truth behind polite euphemisms like “The Battle of Baton Rouge” and “Wellenbeck Military Prison.” Major Warren’s suspicions that all is not as it seems at the Haberdashery are aroused by the fact that the stranger who claims to be minding shop for Minnie is called Bob the Mexican (Bichir)—and everyone knows that Minnie wouldn’t allow Mexicans in her establishment, much less employ one. A flashback in the middle of the film’s second half reveals the missing Minnie to have been a jocular black woman, proof that whites don’t have sole proprietorship on race prejudice. As the plot thickens and the cast thins down, mutual enmity makes for strange bedfellows. Even Warren and Mannix find themselves united by a common cause, literally pulling together to take care of unloosed hellion Domergue, the movie’s punchline being that shared masculine fear of a double-crossing bitch is about the only force powerful enough to overcome deeply ingrained racial difference. Conciliatory influences can be found on the fringes of The Hateful Eight, but they hold no sway over the characters. Warren owes a small measure of celebrity to his possession of a personal correspondence with Abraham Lincoln that, like much in the film, may or may not be real, but his own personal code is malice toward all, charity for none. The movie’s first image following the overture is a rude roadside statue of the crucified Christ, evoking the prologue of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), but ain’t nobody turning the other cheek here.

Being a Tarantino construction, The Hateful Eight is as a matter of course built from memories of movies past. Jackson has been fitted with Lee Van Cleef’s hairline, while Russell, wearing a resplendent cavalryman’s moustache, does a John Wayne impression that will be familiar to anyone who has seen John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a more amiable, sly parody of Wayne’s air of paternal authority. In its air of snowbound apocalypse, however, Tarantino’s movie is closest to Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)—itself a remake of The Thing from Another World (1951) by Howard Hawks, who directed some of Wayne’s persona-defining westerns. (Most of the rest were courtesy John Ford, on whom Tarantino’s badly elucidated thoughts have been widely publicized.)

Tarantino, in his way as much a theoretician-practitioner as, say, Olivier Assayas, has spoken of his habit of writing criticism recreationally, and in The Hateful Eight he is as ever mindful of the section of his audience who take pleasure in panning his films for intertextual nuggets. And maybe this will be enough to sustain some viewers. But in the age when so-called “slow cinema” has acquired a certain amount of intellectual cachet, making it perhaps indelicate for critics to speak of their capacity for boredom, I am inclined to agree with Kenneth Tynan’s pronouncement that “the man who never yawns in the theatre is a menace to it.” Ladies and gentlemen, for a goodly part of its runtime, The Hateful Eight bored me. There is not a single line with quotable pop, and many of the routines—Roth sectioning up the floor of the Haberdashery along the lines of the divided Union, in a moment evoking the beloved “This is my side” sitcom trope—fall absolutely flat. Tarantino’s dialogue, once either thrillingly or deadeningly distinctive, depending on your perspective, increasingly sounds like knockoff Tarantino. (If you were an adolescent movie buff in the 1990s, as I was, you almost certainly once tried to write something in that register.) The plot twist gotchas openly defy Msgr. Ronald Knox’s “decalogue” of detective fiction commandments, and there are many painstakingly laid-out bits of business that provide no perceivable payoff, offering nothing of the “A-ha!” satisfaction that comes from seeing blocks of information click into their prepared and prearranged place.

The argument may convincingly be made, and almost certainly has been already, that this is exactly the point, and that Tarantino isn’t trying to entertain or to satisfy audience expectations, just as the déjà vu double ending of Django Unchained, while trudging and unwieldy, can be justified by its place in the film’s structural schemata. Certainly Tarantino hasn’t set out to be a pleasant host in The Hateful Eight—he is absent from the proceedings as an actor, though butts in with a recap voice-over—but there is every evidence that his latest was designed to be an insidiously compelling guessing-game entertainment that keeps viewers on tenterhooks throughout. Instead it is a bloated, torpid, and largely graceless piece of work, painting itself into a corner in the first half before painting the Haberdashery with the guts of the established cast and a passel of late-reveal characters in the second. In the absence of traditional inducements to the viewer, what remains of The Hateful Eight is an abundance of splashy bloodletting, dead game performances by Goggins and Leigh that occasionally get the better of the script, and whatever philosophical value it may have as a commentary on identity-based clannishness as the only guiding principal in a world where man is wolf to man.

Given the particulars of his movie’s Reconstruction-era setting and the manner in which battlefronts are drawn up along lines of race and gender, Tarantino is steering The Hateful Eight right into the heart of “the conversation,” the impact calculated to scatter thinkpieces in all directions. And though QT has long aligned himself with the fringe exploitation tradition and mangy movies impolitic enough to broach issues that studio films would or could not, today he operates from a position of almost unparalleled self-determination and industry access. The grindhouse guru-cum-antagonist of the police unions has been around long enough to become an institution, and The Hateful Eight continues an ongoing trajectory that finds Tarantino making holiday season Event Cinema exploring Important Issues of the Day—tribal retribution in both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.

As with Django Unchained, what we now tend to refer to as “America’s troubled racial history” is central to The Hateful Eight, though the racial hang-ups attributed to America are naturally filtered through Tarantino’s own, as surely as the streak of podophilia running through his films is no accident. In his awed, defensive, and desperate fixation on African-American potency Tarantino is rivaled only by Lars von Trier, whose toxic take on Americana in Dogville and Manderlay have been, to my mind, at least as important
to QT’s twenty-first century output as any of his other touted influences. (About the closest we’ve gotten to the director openly interrogating his super spade complex thus far is in the character of Gary Oldman’s arch-“wigger” in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance, while O-Ren Ishii’s speech may be taken as his definitive rebuttal to criticisms that his artistic purview should be limited by his racial identity.)

The Hateful Eight, for its part, offers a sour rebuttal to the lessons in brotherhood offered by the classic Stanley Kramer–style “race problem picture,” with misogyny acting as the icky bonding agent. Domergue is unceremoniously pummeled throughout the film, finally appearing almost demoniacal behind a mask of dried gore, the brutal slapstick a willful affront to any contemporary ticket buyer who has somehow failed to grasp the implications of the QT brand. The movie is a test for Tarantino’s public, and the real show will start when the responses roll in. After more than twenty years of taking fire for making each new script a minefield of n-bombs, he has only doubled down, throwing around “niggers” with a parrot-like repetitiveness that is almost narcotic. (In our present period of heightened language policing, The #Problematic Eight may be read as deliberate trolling, though sometime-QT collaborator Eli Roth’s Italian cannibal homage/SJW farce The Green Inferno, released earlier this year, is quite a bit funnier and truer to the fast-and-dirty spirit of its inspirations, even if it had nowhere near the same cultural range as a cinematic stink bomb.) At the same time, Tarantino has also included in his latest a scene inverting the interracial dynamic of the same-sex rape in Pulp Fiction, which seems to assure that the movie won’t play well in Leith, North Dakota. (Try as I may, I can’t remember a single scene of consensual sex in QT’s oeuvre.) Lest I paint a picture of Tarantino holed up and waiting for the outrage brigade, Jimmy Cagney “Come and get me, coppers”–style, it is worth noting that the “equal opportunity offender” maneuver he pulls here can also double as a bulletproof defense.

On at least one hot-button issue, Tarantino has been wholly praiseworthy. In the years since the digital changeover, he has become a high-profile advocate of endangered analog film as a format for both shooting and screening, and has put his money where his (big) mouth is. After taking hands-on control of Los Angeles’s New Beverly Cinema and converting it into the country’s only repertory venue to exclusively show film prints, he has now used the occasion of the release of The Hateful Eight, shot in Ultra Panavision 70 by cinematographer Robert Richardson, to engineer the largest 70mm roll-out in decades. In what can only be read as a bit of deliberate perversity, Tarantino has employed this most uniquely “cinematic” of formats on a claustrophobic film that, on his own admission, was inspired by the fifties and sixties television westerns that he would have grown up with in syndication. (Like Inglourious Basterds, The Hateful Eight also has a disreputable European genre production as its sort-of namesake, Joaquin Romero Marchent’s 1972 Cut-Throats Nine.) Save for a few moody exteriors and the Warren-narrated rape flashback (“Starting to see pictures, ain’t ya?”) right before an intermission that practically begs for walk-outs, the movie is overwhelmingly set indoors, and the 2.76:1 aspect ratio is little used for the expected purpose of capturing wide-open vistas.

Cabin-feverish though it is, The Hateful Eight is still an elegantly composed chamber piece whose DNA shows a little bit of Andrei Konchalovsky’s Uncle Vanya (1970), a touch of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 (1987), and just a dash of Robert A. Endelson’s Fight for Your Life (1977). And while such a hedgehog-ish piece of work can hardly be thought of as an ambassador for celluloid, it may nevertheless serve to educate a wide audience, many of whom may have never seen large-format film projected, in the medium’s particular qualities. But Tarantino has accidentally illustrated another truth relating to format. A great movie is at its best when seen in the optimal format and from optimal materials, but you can still get something out of seeing Touch of Evil (1958) on a textureless DCP projection or a smart phone or muted on a television above a dimly lit bar. But format cannot elevate material. It cannot create a masterpiece—or even a serviceable entertainment—on its own.

The erstwhile enfant terrible Tarantino is now 52, the age by which many of his admitted masters—Carpenter and De Palma, for example, not to speak of Fuller and Hawks—had completed the bulk of their canonical films. In the case of artists that we love, we may stay loyal even in the midst of what the wider world perceives as their decline, for only they know how to scratch a certain itch. In the case of Tarantino, I have admired certain of his films, been indifferent or hostile to others, and seen them all, for he has been inescapable for my generational coevals—but I have never loved his body of work, and so his recent output seems a particularly barren cul-de-sac.

Django Unchained, a logy, bloody-minded film, gave Tarantino the biggest grosses of his career—and a referendum. The Hateful Eight has all the earmarks of a true folly produced by a directorial ego unchained, putting down a big chunk of accumulated cultural capital (and the goodwill of the Weinsteins) on what looks like a long shot. There’s a lot riding on this gambit, for everything that Tarantino has said indicates that he views himself as a popular filmmaker—he ranks Death Proof as his worst movie, a fact that one suspects has more than a little to do with Grindhouse’s commercial failure. That Tarantino propelled himself to household-name status with nihilistic and gory entertainments has always been part of the knock against him—per a 1997 takedown by Peter Lunenfeld which identified QT as the great betrayer of the American independent tradition, his coalition audience was “a majority with minority tastes.” If Tarantino was actually toppling sacred shibboleths and challenging majority opinion, the argument goes, then why was he making so much money in doing so? In point of fact, I would suggest that it took considerably more moral and professional courage for Ford to make Sergeant Rutledge in 1960 than it did for Tarantino to make Django Unchained in 2012, but perhaps “bravery” ought never be part of the conversation when talking about filmmaking. Suffice it to say that The Hateful Eight is a stubbornly, defiantly misanthropic movie, a film that brings back the spirit of Hollywood in the mid-60s—not only in the Ultra Panavision, but in the stench of creative dry rot.